Burmese Days

Burmese Days Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does the novel depict the Burmese?

    While it is clear that Orwell does not possess the opinions of the hated Ellis, or even the lackluster Lackersteens or the other men at the Club, the reader can glean that he does not possess particularly positive opinions of them. Both U Po Kyin and the most likeable and fully-fleshed native character, Dr. Veraswami, are virtually caricatures. They are not very nuanced, the former fully inhabiting the wily native stereotype and the latter fully inhabiting the guileless and sycophantic native stereotype. Furthermore, the natives that attack the Club and the natives that start the larger uprising are disorganized and seemingly lacking in purpose or drive. They are nearly buffoonish and easily dispersed when the heroic Flory comes into the fray. Orwell's depiction of the natives thus is an indicator of Orwell's complicated feelings on the people that that the English colonized -he does not loathe them and recognizes that they have been harmed by the English, but he still seems to possess some of the stereotypical views of his people and his time.

  2. 2

    How does the novel depict the English?

    Orwell is not wholly forgiving of the English; in fact, he offers several damning critiques of the English under colonialism. Ellis is the most horrific, possessing the most cruel and hostile views on the natives rooted in complete ignorance and prejudice. The rest might not be as cruel but they are almost as ignorant; they are sure of their own superiority, and are lazy, weak, apathetic, dull, and in thrall to booze. They do not care for the truth, only for how things seem to be. They are quick to believe rumors and gossip, and are hypocritical. They do not want anyone to have opinions that deviate from the standard imperial line -like Flory. Freedom of speech and thought are suppressed.

  3. 3

    What is the significance of Flory's birthmark?

    The birthmark is not just a physical mark that makes Flory uncomfortable and insecure, although it certainly does that. In the text it functions as a symbol, something that takes on greater significance than it normally would. It comes to embody all that differentiates Flory from the other Europeans, especially Elizabeth. It is a visual reminder that he possesses ideas and opinions that set him apart from others and make him feel lost and lonely. Furthermore, it also embodies his weaknesses and shortcomings as a character. He initially lacks courage and decisiveness, preferring to keep quiet rather than stick up for what he believes in or speak freely. He seems stuck in situations he knows make him unhappy but can do little about them. The birthmark's power is revealed because it is always there when he feels embarrassed (Orwell writes, "He always remembered the birthmark when he had done something to be ashamed of" [54]) or nervous, and because once he dies, it finally fades away into a pale mark.

  4. 4

    What role does Ma Hla May play in the text?

    There is something very tragic about Ma Hla May's character. She is the perfect example of the way men treat women poorly, and how the English treat the natives poorly. In regards to gender, she is only valued for her value to men. All of her self-worth is derived from the sexual pleasure she provides men; this is cemented at the end of the novel when she has to work in a brothel. She is disposed cruelly by Flory when he is done with her, and manipulated by U Po Kyin to serve his own ends at the expense of her sanity and reputation. In regards to the colonial system, Orwell writes of her in an exoticized way -she is the alluring "other", the classic stereotype of the Eastern object of desire. Once she is out of favor, though, she becomes shrill and obnoxious and yet another unrealistic depiction of a native character. Ma Hla May ultimately offers the most tenuous position in the text, as she is a woman and a native. There is no place for her to go once she is abandoned by her protectors, and her fate is a sad commentary on gender and racial relations. Whether or not Orwell intended to convey that fact or not, it is an important one for the reader to glean.

  5. 5

    What appear to be the narrative's position on imperialism?

    Orwell's views on imperialism are rather complicated. He is neither a complete supporter of the endeavor, nor is he a an ardent foe. He does not even seem entirely aware himself how he feels about it. On the one hand, his depiction of Ellis and the other men in the Club indicates that he thinks very little of the English sent to carry out their country's noble ambition. In his protagonist's conversation with Dr. Veraswami, Orwell spells out all the various hypocrisies and lies and prejudices that buttress the colonial structure. However, Orwell is not entirely critical, for he occasionally breaks into the text to express a grudging sympathy for the English, and his depiction of the natives is not very flattering. He cannot bring himself in this novel to fully extricate himself from the accumulation of centuries of prejudice and ideas of cultural and racial supremacy.

  6. 6

    What is the significance of the character of Elizabeth?

    Elizabeth is a significant character in the text, although not because of her own particular characteristics. First, she is important because she is a catalyst for Flory's change in thinking and behavior. Her mere presence excites him and galvanizes him, and the prospect of a life with her makes him more confident. When their relationship begins to disintegrate, Flory realizes he does not have much left and performs two heroic actions -nominating the doctor for the Club, and helping save the English during the Burmese uprising. Second, Elizabeth is important because she provides insights to the reader in terms of the gender norms of the day and in the prevailing mindset of the Europeans who came to Burma. Elizabeth is a recognizable type -generally harmless, but prejudiced and ignorant and too lazy to change.

  7. 7

    What is the significance of the hunt?

    In the hunt Elizabeth and Flory come closer to being in sync with each than any other moment. They are doing an activity that Elizabeth approves of in terms of her rigid gender and racial hierarchy, and it is something that Flory is skilled at. She is able to ignore his birthmark because it does not figure as a mark of difference. Furthermore, Elizabeth is filled with lust due to the violence of the hunt; the visceral thrill of killing the birds and the leopard are an aphrodisiac for her. Unfortunately the effects of the hunt are short-lived, as Flory cannot maintain this perception of his strength and masculinity. The dead leopard, whose skin rots and stinks when it is improperly cured, becomes a potent symbol for Flory and Elizabeth's disintegrating relationship.

  8. 8

    Why doesn't Flory return to England?

    The reader may wonder why, if Flory is so lonely, he does not return to England. It is a valid question, but Orwell provides the answers in his biography of Flory included near the beginning of the text. Flory fell in love with Burma initially because it offered an easy, louche life of debauchery and amusement. His second school taught him nothing, and his relative lack of ambition was rewarded in Burma. He began to get used to the climate and rhythms of life, and by the time the War broke out he felt that "the East had already corrupted him" (67) and he did not want to go. He began to also realize what his sordid life had done to him physically and mentally, and thought about returning to England. This plan did not work, and Flory realized he was at home there. Why? There was no one or nothing for him back in England. Like a soldier who experiences a war and comes home to a life that feels strange and unfamiliar, Flory knows that he could not go back to his former home. He made "deep roots" (72) in Burma, whether he liked it or not. The fact is, Flory does not really fit in anywhere -hence his problems throughout the text and his ultimate fate.

  9. 9

    How do the characters in the novel interact with each other?

    There is a great deal of estrangement and isolation between characters in this novel; no one seems to have an authentic or meaningful relationship that is reciprocal and based in an ultimate awareness of the essential truth of each person. The marriage depicted in the text -the Lackersteens' -is full of subterfuge. The men at the Club mostly keep their true thoughts to themselves, and quarrel incessantly over trivialities; the difficulties of colonial life are not conducive to intimacy. Elizabeth and Flory's relationship is one of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and tension, and hers with Verrall's is also laughable in its lack of real understanding. As for the relationships with natives, Flory flat-out says there can be no intimacy there; his relationship to the doctor comes close, but Flory is mostly incapable of being honest with him. Overall, the colonial climate exacerbates hostility, bitterness, suspicion, and rumor-mongering. The characters know each other almost as little as they know themselves.

  10. 10

    How are the events of the novel related to Orwell's own life?

    The novel did not spring fully-formed from Orwell's imagination; rather, it was conceived based upon his real-life experiences as a member of the Imperial Police in Burma from 1922-1927. Orwell wrote it in Paris the year after he returned. The novel reveals Orwell's mixture of love and hate for Burma. It shows him wrestling with the idea of imperialism and with his own feelings on race. While there he became very critical of the way the English behaved, and found the foundation upon which the British Raj rested shaky and rife with hypocrisy. Although his novel is primarily character-driven, rather than an incisive and unrelenting critique of imperialism, it is still an important document in that it reveals, subtly, an author struggling to come to terms with his experiences and the legacy of his country's endeavors and system of beliefs.